Thursday, May 29, 2008


By Shepard Rifkin
Hard Case Crime
254 pages

This is one hell of a good book. Unlike a lot of crime titles that aspire to the label of noire, this one delivers. It is a hard edged, brutal look at America in the early sixties set against the backdrop of racial prejudice as it existed in the Deep South.

Joe Dunne is a Korean War veteran who makes a decent living as a private eye in New York City. He’s even got a cute, blonde secretary named Kirby, a former Georgia peach. The trouble with Dunne is he’s wants more and that greed is his Achilles’ heel. When the son of a wealthy industrialist goes missing in Mississippi while working on voter registration for blacks, his father believes he’s been murdered. He hires Dunne not only to prove that assumption, but to find the men responsible and kill them. In short order Dunne is promised half a million dollars to murder five men. He accepts the jobs.

Dunne meticulously plans the assignment by creating a bogus identity for himself and Kirby, who has convinced him to bring her along as proper Southern camouflage. She is not aware of his actual mission and assumes he’s only looking for the murderers. Of course once they arrive in the sleepy little community of Okalusa, Dunne must play the part of a bigot to ingratiate himself with the suspects, one of which is the town’s redneck sheriff. It is a repulsive role and he despises himself for having to assume it. Through Kirby, Dunne sees the South as it truly is, a divided land still nursing its wounds from a hundred year old war with the North.

Rifkin captures the atmosphere of the times perfectly and although it was easy to see the tragic ending half way through the book, that is what noir is all about. Noir stories are about being trapped on a runaway train whose tracks go off the cliff. You see the wreck coming and there’s nothing you, or the protagonist, can do about it. Noir is being a victim of fate and that’s the tragedy of Joe Dunne. It’s a fate he chose for himself.

This is one of the finest noir thrillers ever penned. Kudos to Hard Case Crime for bringing it back. It deserves a huge audience.

Monday, May 26, 2008


Novel by Louise Simonson
Story by Jordan Goldberg
Ace Science Fiction
278 pages

A solid round of applause to Warner Brothers Animation for producing a truly marvelous new animated film in the continuing saga of Gotham City’s greatest detective. WB recruited several popular Batman comics scribes to contribute a story set during the interval time frame between BATMAN BEGINS and the soon to be released, DARK KNIGHT. The idea was to create a direct to DVD animated feature they could release while the sequel was playing in theaters around the world. What is truly exciting is that producer Bruce Timm opted to have each segment done overseas in Japan employing their brand of stylized cartooning known as anime. As a fan of animation, I’m most eager to see this movie when it debuts.

In the meanwhile, not one to miss a product opportunity, those same WB execs took the animation film script and had it novelized for the paperback market. They were also smart enough to assign it to Louise Simonson. Simonson, no stranger to comic scripting, took the separate elements from the movie and wove them together into a very neat, cohesive drama that effectively captures the somber tone of this Batman’s world.

It has only been a few weeks since the events depicted in BATMAN BEGINS and Jim Gordon and his team of detectives find themselves hard pressed to maintain law and order in the hell-hole that is Gotham. With the death of mob boss, Falcone, both the Italian and Russian gangs are battling each other to gain control of the city’s criminal underwold. Amidst carnage, the Scarecrow is still at large, directing an army of Arkham Asylum escapees, one of which is the mutant monster known as Killer Croc.

And if that wasn’t enough to keep billionaire Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego busy, a deadly super assassin, known as Deadshot, is responsible for several high profile murders. Word on the street is that his next target will be the Caped Crusader himself.

Novelizations are tricky as the writer generally has to pad the narrative to comply with normal book lengths that usually exceed film scripts. Still, the book should mirror the events of the movie it is based upon. Simonson not only attains that objective but also enhances the adventure with her own personal understanding of this truly iconic cultural hero. BATMAN GOTHAM KNIGHT is a good read and will appease even the most dedicated Bat-fans.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Vol #1 – Judgment of the Witch
By Robert McMammon
Pocket Books Fiction
483 pages

Will someone please tell me how you review half a book? That’s the dilemma I find myself in after having just finished SPEAKS THE NIGHTBIRD : Vol. #1 by Robert McMammon. Had I been aware it was only the first half of a longer story, I would have waited until I had both before reading it. This doesn’t excuse the publisher in the slightest. Part of me is very upset with all this and righteously so.

I would love to meet the editor who came up with the idiot idea of splitting this novel into two books. This is just another case of avarice and greed winning out over common sense. If this book is actually one half of McMammon’s actual manuscript, then we can deduce the entire narrative is approximately 966 pages long. I have dozens of books in my library (paperbacks no less) that are longer this. I had no qualms in purchasing them, nor any difficulties in reading and enjoying them. There is much to be said for a big book.

Little can be said for stupid editor/publishers who make us pay twice for one story. Shame on Pocket Books and all involved. It was a cheap, economic trick and one we find reprehensible. Especially when done to such a wonderful work of fiction.

The book is an historical murder mystery that takes place in the American Colonies of the Carolinas in 1699. McMammon describes an accurate, frontier world where survival was a daily struggle and the colonists were very much British in their sensibilities about law, justice and government. In the new settlement of Fount Royal two men have been murdered and their deaths appear to be the work of a witch. After locking her up, the Mayor, a pompous character with dreams of riches for his burgeoning village, sends a message to Charles Town asking for a Magistrate. He wants someone who will come and conduct a speedy, but proper trial so they can legally burn the accused woman and end her threat.

What he gets instead is Issac Woodard, a seasoned, intelligent judge who will not allow himself to be used as a tool for civil murder. Accompanying him is his astute and clever young clerk, Matthew Corbett. Matthew is the book’s protagonist and we quickly learn his childhood as an orphan on the wild streets of New York City was anything but pleasant. Rescued from a boy’s home by Woodard, Matthew matures into a quick thinking apprentice who loves to solve mysteries. The case of the Fount Royal witch soon has him playing detective, searching for clues and at the same time attracting the animosity of the town’s people. They want Rachel Howarth, the beautiful accused widow, put to death and are frustrated by Woodard and Corbett’s turtle like investigation.

By the end of this book, Woodard has fallen seriously ill adding to Matthew’s worries. The evidence they accumulate is all damning and it appears the Magistrate will have no recourse but to condemn the woman in his ruling. Believing her innocent, Matthew is all too aware his time to find the real killer is running out unless he can solve the various mysterious happenings in this swamp-infested world he and his mentor have come to.

SPEAKS THE NIGHTBIRD is a terrific first half. Still it only that and being fair, I cannot recommend it to anyone, by itself. I’m left with having to find the second half and it’s a predicament I do not appreciate at all. So, unless you’ve both parts in hand, save yourself this grief and pass on this book.

Thursday, May 08, 2008


Side B
By Robert Bloch
Hard Case Crime
160 pages

(As promised, this week I’m reviewing the “other” side of the new Hard Case Crime double flip book. For my comments on Side A, see my preview entry below.)

Eddie Haines is a small time dreamer from Iowa who comes to Hollywood in hopes of hitting the big time with his good looks and radio trained voice. He wants to be TV announcer. When the harsh reality of Tinsel Town comes crashing down on him, he is left battered, penniless and completely disillusioned. Refusing to return home a failure, Haines opts to take a more final solution to his problems.

Just as he is about to commit suicide, someone slips a hundred dollar bill under his door. The owner of that C note is a small, fat and bald little German fellow calling himself the Professor. At first Haines thinks the odd fellow his lucky angel because the Professor has come to recruit him with the promise of immense fame, glory and riches. It is temptation the dejected young man cannot possible resist.

He soon learns that his mentor is a sophisticated confidence man with an amazing intellect; all of which is put to use robbing the wealthy. A polished manipulator with a silver tongue, the Professor convinces Haines that their activities are no more immoral than toothpaste commercials on television. If the rich are so gullible as to part with their money on any brightly packaged gimmick, then why shouldn’t they partake in the harvest?

The Professor sets about creating a fictional persona for Haines, turning into a psychological guru named Judson Roberts. The idea is for Haines/Roberts, to become an indispensable crutch to the varied Hollywood neurotics thus being allowed into their personal lives to learn their most intimate secrets. Secrets which the Professor then uses to blackmail them. By the time Haines realized just how evil his teacher is, he is eyeball deep in extortion and murder. He has become nothing but another sucker caught in his mater’s bloody web. Can he escape, or is he doomed to a life of crime?

SPIDERWEB is an intense, taut thriller that completely engrossed me from the first page. It is clearly one of Block’s finest works and a real joy to read. Combined with SHOOTING STAR, this double-book package is a real treasure for any fan of crime fiction.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


Side A
By Robert Bloch
Hard Case Crime
154 pages

As a teenager in the early 1960s, one of my fondest memories is of the Ace Doubles. I don’t pretend to know the exact history of these paperback flip books, only that I bought many of them in all kinds of genres. Why the idea came up, again, I haven’t a clue. Maybe it was a marketing ploy to give the readers twice as much bang for their bucks. What they did was print two books together, usually by different authors, back to back in reverse with two separate covers. Thus if you held one side of the book, the second half would be upside down. Once you finished reading one novel, you merely “flipped” the book over to read the second.

Hard Case Crime has brought back this nifty little gimmick with two crime thrillers from the pen of Robert Bloch, the author famous for having written the film PSYCHO for Alfred Hitchcock. Each of the two books has its own cover and is printed back to back. My initial thought was to read both before doing my reviews, but I realized that wasn’t fair. Each novel should stand on its own despite the other it is paired with in this package. To that end, here’s my first review of what I’m calling side A. Next week some time, after I’ve finished it, come back to see my review for Side B.

In SHOOTING STAR, Block makes good use of his intimate knowledge of Hollywood and its eccentric citizenry by setting it as the backdrop to a story of murder and drugs. Mark Clayburn is a one-eyed literary agent who has fallen on hard times. All of which is explained as the narrative moves along. Clayburn, for his own personal reasons, also possesses a private investigator’s license and that is what snares him into an affair he really had no business getting involved with.

A famous western star named Dick Ryan was shot to death in his trailer out on the ranch set of his latest movie. In the process of investigating the case, the police find marijuana and suddenly Ryan’s name is sullied by this association with drugs. Which is where one-time producer Harry Bannock comes into story. Bannock tells Clayburn that he has bought the rights to all of Ryan’s old western melodramas and stands to make a fortune if he can package them for television distribution. The trouble is because of the drug connection, none of the major TV houses want to associate themselves with the late actor. Thus Bannock hires Clayburn not so much to find out who killed the star, but rather to prove his was not a drug addict and clean up his reputation.

Of course the second the eye-patch wearing Clayburn begins poking his nose on the month old case, he starts getting anonymous phone threats to drop the case. Then a beautiful young starlet is murdered shortly after telling Clayburn she has information for him. Soon the bodies are piling up, the cops are becoming very, very annoyed with the agent turned private eye and a twisted killer is still free and most likely ready to make him the next corpse.

Robert Bloch was an accomplished writer and his style is always entertaining. He plays loose with the entire noire genre, having fun with his hero at the same time delivering a really good mystery that kept me guessing until the final pages. SHOOTING STAR delivers on all fronts. Here’s hoping Side B is just as good.